Monday, March 10, 2014

Conscience and Priorities: A Ray of Light for the Homeless in Arizona

by Nomad

Arizona has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. From legislative attempts to tear down national educational standards or bills targeting gays under the shield of protecting religious freedom, Arizona seems like a real mess. However, it's important to recall that there is another side to report. 

Due to a few Tea Party radicals, Arizona has received a lot of bad press lately. However, as Kennedy once said that "no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue." This wise reminder holds true for the people of the "Grand Canyon State".
Here's one small example of the pang of conscience leading to action.

Parker Olson for Arizona Public Radio, reports how a group of students at Northern Arizona University came up with one way to reduce waste while feeding the homeless. According to sources, university meal plans offer flexibility to students when it comes to when and how much they eat. This flexibility however comes at a cost. Every week, thousands of meal vouchers at colleges across the country go unused. This means a lot of prepared food is wasted.
NAU's voucher plan allows students to buy a certain number of meals each week. If they don't use them all by Saturday night, the vouchers expire.
One freshman student, Caitlin Fagan decided to put the wasted food to good use. With the help of like-minded friends, his group collects the food on campus and redistributes to people in need around Flagstaff. Some volunteers head out along Route 66 looking for the homeless and the hungry.  
The article explains one case:
That's where they meet Clark Reber, who's down on his luck and staying at a local shelter. "It's awesome," Reber tells the students. "You guys are doing great work here. You're uplifting to people that are down and out and bringing food which everyone needs."
Admittedly it's a small project but it could easily be expanded and combined with similar waste-reduction efforts.
In the month since the student-run program started, organizers estimate they've fed about 100 people. If there's any food left after their Saturday night runs, they donate it to a local rescue mission. The group hopes to keep growing and become another reliable source for feeding Flagstaff's hungry and homeless.
Certainly the down and out need all the help they can get. It all boils down to priorities and responsibilities to help without judgement.

According to studies in 2012, there were over 28,000 individuals (estimated at 22,350 adults and 5,805 children) who experienced homelessness in Arizona. It is, of course, difficult to know precisely the actual numbers given the transience of the population.
In any case, that number represented a 12.8 percent increase from the previous year. 
A breakdown of the 2012 figures reveal that the homeless do not belong to any one racial or ethnic background. As you'd expect,  67.4 percent identified themselves as White and 25.5 percent of those  identified themselves as Hispanic. Blacks accounted for 14 percent, Racially Mixed, 3.4 percent and American Indian, 8.6 percent .
The figures from 2012 also show that a majority, 58 percent of the homeless in Arizona were male. Veterans accounted for 13 percent of the adult homeless population. 

Because of its mild winters, Arizona- like a lot of states in the South- tends to draw the homeless. It beats the threat of freezing to death. Last month, it was reported that at least, five homeless Americans died as a result ofexposure this winter.

However, being without adequate shelter or a means of finding food is not easy even in relatively warm Arizona. The state gives a plenty of lip-service but the message from local government was loud and clear:  
Your demands for small change and a bite to eat are an embarrassment to civic leaders and a hindrance to doing business. You are not wanted. We don't want to even see you.

Like many other states during the economic crisis of 2008, Arizona enacted laws banning begging for money or food. The policy was aimed at removing people from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on suspicion of loitering to beg. Flagstaff police had arrested an estimated 135 people on suspicion of loitering to beg during one year. 
According to an October article in the Los Angeles Times, this kind of targeting of the weakest members of society did not go unchallenged.

Last year, a lawsuit against the city of Flagstaff was filed by the ACLU on behalf of a 77-year-old woman who was arrested when she asked an undercover police officer for bus fare. $1.25.

A federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and the city was forced to re-think its  policy.
The council agreed and voted unanimously to stop enforcing the statute, promising that city officials would no longer interfere with a person peacefully begging in public spaces.
The plaintiff in the case, Marlene Baldwin, said in a statement released by the ACLU following the court decision,
"I'm glad I won't be taken to jail just for speaking to people."
Said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who served as ACLU co-counsel in the lawsuit,
“Law enforcement must stand up for the constitutional rights of peaceful beggars and not just respond to complaints from powerful downtown business interests who would take those rights away and sweep homelessness and poverty out of sight."
Perhaps this is the real face of Arizona which needs a lot more attention than the delirious intolerance of the small number of Tea Party extremists.